Martianus on Daemons

Category: Theology > On Daemons and Souls

1 Introduction

Embedded in the framing narrative of Martianus Capella’s Philology, there is a little disquisition on daemons, which happens to be the most comprehensive and systematic – and often quite innovative – account of minor deities anywhere in ancient Latin literature. The mini-essay is cast as a speech by Juno (the deity presiding over the air) to the eponymous character Philology, a human woman who is ascending to godhood.

The section headings are added by me. After the translation, you can find a diagrammatic summary, and a paraphrase that draws out some of the points more clearly than they come across in Capella’s playfully baroque prose.

[I intend to revise this translation to make it more readable, and perhaps add a commentary.]

2 Translation

‹from ether to sun›

(150) Those beings whom we see to be of fiery and flaming substance, passing from the ether itself and the cycle of the highest sphere down to the solar circle, they are called the very gods – also known as the celestials –, and they arrange the secrets of the hidden causes (of all things). For they are purer, and the prayers over human cares do not concern them at all; they are called ἀπαθεῖς (‘unaffectable’). It is most certain that Jupiter rules there.

‹from sun to moon›

(151) But below the course of the Sun, down to the lunar orb, there are deities (numina) of secondary blessedness and unequal power, by whom nevertheless prophecies, dreams and prodigies are created. They divide the admonishing innards in haruspicy, and they send voices and speak in augural omens; they also give advice to queriers by the course of a star, a missile of lightning or a prodigious marvel.

(152) Now, each one of them serves some one of the higher gods, and by the decision of the latter and the obedience of the former, there was appointed one general Genius presiding over all, and a specific genius for each mortal, whom they have also called Praestes, because he presides (praesit) over all their deeds. For on the one hand, supplications are made to the genius of the people when the general one is invoked, and on the other hand, each person pays respect to their own ruler, and he is called genius because, when any human being is born, he is quickly joined to it. This guardian and most faithful brother protects the souls and intellects of all people, (153) and because he relates the secrets of their thoughts to the power above, he can also be called an angel.

(154) The Greeks call all of these daemons, ἀπὸ τοῦ δαιομένοῦ (‘from being distributed’), but in Latin people are wont to call them Medioximi (‘middlemost’). Although they have a less bright and resplendent nature than those celestials show – as you can see –, yet they are not so corporeal as to be grasped by the human eye.

(155) Here, then, are the Lares, and here dwell the purer souls after the bond with the body’s organs (is dissolved), although, if they are carried up by the excellence of their merits, they can often overleap the sphere of the Sun and the boundary of flame.

‹from moon to earth: the upper region›

(156) Hence, from the lunar sphere to the earth, the space that is between them is itself subdivided, and it is separated in the middle (reckoned) from the lunar orb. But the higher part contains those whom they call hemithei (‘demigods’), and whom it is apt to call Semones or semidei (‘semigods’) in Latin. These have celestial souls and sacred intellects, and are born in human appearance for the benefit of the whole world, (157) but still often gave proof that they belonged to the celestials by a miracle. In the birth of Hercules, for example, a double night was yielded, and when the same was still an infant, he strangled serpents, both events showing the power of his divinity. Tages broke forth from the furrows and immediately taught the people his rite and exctispy. Hammon appeared with the horns of a ram and showed clothing from wool and indicated the waters of a spring to the thirsty.

(158) What should I say about those who first offered to mortals the use of things and the greater advantages (furnished by them)? Dionysus, for example, discovered the vine in Thebes, and Osiris discovered the drink of wine and its usefulness among the Egyptians. Isis taught about crops in Egypt, Triptolemus in Attica, and the same Isis showed the usefulness and the seed of flax. Italy assigns the milling of grain and spelt to Pilumnus; Greece ascribes medicine to Asclepius.

(159) Other humans of this kind were also born to practice divination and foreknowledge, like Carmentis in Arcadia, named after the songs (carmina) she poured out in her prophesying; the Sibyl, whether the Erythraean, who is also the Cumaean, or the Phrygian – whom you know to have been not ten, as is claimed, but two, i.e., the Trojan Herophila, the daughter of Marmensus(?), and Symmachia, the daughter of Hippotensis(?). She was born in Erythra, and prophesied in Cumae. For the same ability of divination, Amphiaraus and Mopsus are celebrated.

‹from moon to earth: the lower region and generally›

(160) From the middle of the air down to the summits of the mountains and the earth, demigods and heroes dwell. The latter are named heroes because the ancients called the earth Hera. In the same place, there are the Manes, i.e., the guardians who are allotted to the human body, and who have flowed (manaverunt) from the seed of one’s parents.

(161) This whole diffusion of air, from the moon downwards, stands under the power of Pluton, who is also called Summanus – ‘highest of the Manes’ (summus Manium), as it were. Here, Luna, who rules this air, is called Proserpine.

(162) Now, those Manes, since they are allotted to bodies at the moment of conception, are also delighted with the same bodies after life, and when they remain (manentes) with them, they are called Lemures. But if they are supported by their virtue in the previous life, they are turned into the Lares of houses and cities. (163) And if they are corrupted from the body, they are named Larvae and Maniae. So, the Manes here are good or wicked in character, and the Greek distinction knows them as ἀγαθούς (‘good’) et κακοὺς δαίμονας (‘evil daemons’).

(164) In these places, there also live the Summanes and their overseers, Mana and Mantuona as well as the gods called ‘dark’, and further, Fura and Furinna and Mater Mania and the Ravings and the sad gods.

(165) Around the very globe of the earth, the air is made to whirl by the heat from above and the vapor and moisture from below; it presses together souls leaving their bodies in a kind of river of heat and does not allow them to fly away easily; (166) and hence, the art of fantastic poetry has allusively talked about the river Pyrphlegethon, and the twisted impiety of the souls condemned by Vedius – i.e., Pluton, whom they have also called Dis and Veiovis – crashes together with unending noise.

‹the earth itself›

(167) The Earth itself too, where it is impassible for humanity, is crammed full of the dancing troupes of the long-lived who inhabit the forests, groves, thickets, lakes, springs and rivers, and who are called Pans, Fauns, Fones(?), Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs, Fatui and Fatuae or Fantuae or even Fanae, after whom the fanes are named because they often prophesy. These all, after a drawn-out lifetime, die like humans, but they also have a very great power of foreknowing and attacking and harming.

‹the juno among the genii›

(168) Now, your goddess, as that of a virgin who was mortal until now, remains among the aforementioned genii; for see, ethereal Juno – unless she rather is Vesta – already beckons you as an immortal goddess, saying: “A seat in the council of Jupiter is already assigned”.

3 Summary

Not mentioned here: incorporeal gods beyond the cosmos

Fixed star sphere : gods, purest souls
Saturn sphere : „
Jupiter sphere : „
Mars sphere : „
Solar sphere : „

Venus sphere : secondary deities, genii/angels, Lares, purer souls
Mercury sphere : „
Lunar sphere : „

upper air (above mountains) : semigods
lower air : heroes, Manes (➞ Lemures, Lares, Larvae, Maniae), ‘sad gods’ (etc.), impure souls

earth: the long-lived (Satyrs, Nymphs, etc.); not mentioned here: living humans, animals

4 Paraphrase

In 150, Capella briefly discusses the gods, or at least those gods who are embodied in the cosmos (he elsewhere refers to incorporeal gods beyond the cosmos, too). They are the visible stars, both fixed stars (in the outermost sphere) and the planets. (Although one must note that he elsewhere refers to gods who do not seem to be stars.) Capella reserves the space from the fixed stars (through Saturn, Jupiter and Mars) to the Sun for the gods, but of course he does not mean that the lower planets (Venus, Mercury, Moon) and the Earth are not also gods; only that in their spheres, there are also beings other than gods.

In 151–152, Platonic daemons in the narrower sense are treated. Each daemon belongs to a certain god, and (presumably) each god has many daemons. So, for instance, although we cannot affect Jupiter, his daemons – who, according to other Platonists, use the same name as their god – hear our prayers. They are also the cause for the signs observed in various forms of divination, namely haruspicy (inspection of the entrails of sacrifical animals), augury (observing the movement and sounds of birds), astrology, fulgural divination (from lightning) and omens (prodigies, i.e., unnatural occurences).

In 152–154, Capella discusses genii, who are also classified as daemons (or Medioximi, a term he borrows from Apuleius). There is, according to him, a universal Genius as well as particular genii praestites, who are allotted to individuals upon being born. The former reflects the genius of the people, who was worshipped as such in antiquity, but Martianus sees him as governing all people, not the Roman people in particular. The genii praestites are identified as angels, a class of beings that was known and worshipped by many pagans in antiquity. By contrast, the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, whom Martianus Capella is often wrongly thought to be following closely, considered angels to be ranked above daemons, not a lower class of them.

From 154, it could be concluded that only the two previously mentioned classes are daemons; and perhaps they are so in the primary sense; but it seems that all the beings discussed subsequently are also of daemonic rank.

In 155, we learn that the Lares (of uncertain identification) and pure souls live in the same spheres as the previously discussed daemons, i.e., from Sun to Moon. But the best souls descend to the gods and dwell in the uppermost sphere(s).

156–159 gives a unique account of demigods (whom he also calls semigods and, punningly, Semones), explaining the many traditions of gods and children of the gods who lived as or among humans (something which can hardly be said of the astral gods). There is a degree of tension here with the notion of gods who once were truly human but merited divinization (a status above that of demigods); Capella lists some of the same gods as demigods here, but as divinized souls elsewhere.

The lower air of 160–166 essentially corresponds to the underworld of the mythological poets. This is a point of commonality with Middle Platonists like Plutarch, whereas the Neoplatonists generally accepted the idea of an underworld within the globe of the Earth. This realm is ruled by the Moon, identified as Proserpine, and Pluton (whom Capella also calls Summanus, Vedius, Dis and Veiovis).

The heroes of 160 are also called demigods, but are distinct from the demigods of 156–160. It it would appear that they always exist as heroes in the air (along the lines of the heroes in Neoplatonism); at any rate there is no indication that they were originally human, as the ordinary non-philosophical understanding of heroes would hold.

The Manes of 160163 are not the souls of the dead, as one would expect from common usage. Rather, they are daemons that are attached to a living person, rather like the genius, except apparently inherited rather than allotted individually. They are divided into various classes depending on their merit. Good Manes become the Lares who guard houses and cities; those which remain attached to corpses are Lemures (an explanatiion of ghosts at variance with Plato’s Phaedo), those which become actively malicious are the Larvae and Maniae. This theory seems to be derived from Apuleius, but there it relates to the soul.

According to 164, there are also gods of this realm, most of them deeply obscure, as are the Summanes, who are mentioned nowhere else in extant literature.

In 165–166, Capella turns to the souls of the dead themselves. Those whose sentence is to dwell in the lower air are punished in hot streams of air. As a reminder, two better fates are mentioned in 155.

167 lists the so-called long-lived, mortal beings who dwell on the Earth, albeit in hidden places: Nymphs, Satyrs, Pans, etc.

In 168, Capella provides an addendum to 152: women have a juno rather than a genius. But she is quite distinct from the aetherial (fiery) goddess Juno, whom Philology is yet to encounter. To distinguish her from the Juno who rules the air, this aetherial goddess is tentatively identified as Vesta (who is more firmly associated with fire). Capella seems to leave it somewhat ambiguous whether the Juno who has been speaking is Philology’s personal juno. (But in the section that just precedes our mini-essay, she appears to be the ruler of the air herself, not merely a personal juno.)